Giant US coronavirus relief bill heads for debate in House

People look out at the iconic Space Needle, as greater Seattle battles one of the biggest US cases of the coronavirus, in Seattle, Washington, US March 12, 2020. — Reuters pic
People look out at the iconic Space Needle, as greater Seattle battles one of the biggest US cases of the coronavirus, in Seattle, Washington, US March 12, 2020. — Reuters pic

WASHINGTON, March 27 — The US House of Representatives will begin a two-hour debate on a sweeping, US$2.2 trillion (RM9.5 trillion) coronavirus aid bill at 9am (1300 GMT) today, despite doubts over whether it can quickly pass on a voice vote or will be delayed into the weekend.

While most of the House’s 430 members are in their home districts because of the coronavirus outbreak, several are expected to travel to Washington for a vote sometime after 11am (1500 GMT), according to an advisory issued yesterday.

The leaders of the Democratic-majority House want to pass the bill today, or at the very latest tomorrow, hoping to provide quick relief to Americans as deaths mount and the economy reels from the pandemic.

On a call with fellow Democrats yesterday afternoon, Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged House members not to do anything to delay the unprecedented economic aid package the Republican-led Senate backed by a unanimous 96-0 vote on Wednesday night.

The rescue package — which would be the largest fiscal relief measure ever passed by Congress — will rush direct payments to Americans within three weeks if the House backs it and President Donald Trump signs it into law.

The US$2.2 trillion measure includes US$500 billion to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for payments of up to US$3,000 to millions of families.

The legislation will also provide US$350 billion for small-business loans, US$250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least US$100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

Voice vote sought

The rare but deep, bipartisan support in Congress underscored how seriously lawmakers are taking the global pandemic as Americans suffer and the medical system threatens to buckle.

Pelosi said House leaders were planning to fast-track the rescue plan by passing it via a voice vote on Friday. She had said that if there were calls for a roll-call vote, lawmakers might be able to vote by proxy, as not all would be able to be in Washington.

The Capitol has laid out special procedures because of the coronavirus — including barring members from sitting beside one another — to minimise the threat of infection as they vote.

There could be opposition. Republican Representative Thomas Massie said he opposed the bill, and was uncomfortable with the idea of allowing it to pass on a voice vote, rather than recording how each House member voted.

“I’m having a real hard time with this,” Massie, an outspoken fiscal conservative, said on 55KRC talk radio in Cincinnati.

Other members lashed back at Massie. Democratic Representative Dean Phillips addressed Massie on Twitter asking him to let his colleagues know if he intended to delay the bill’s passage “RIGHT NOW so we can book flights and expend about US$200,000 in taxpayer money to counter your principled but terribly misguided stunt.”

The United States surpassed China and Italy yesterday as the country with the most coronavirus cases. The number of US cases passed 82,000, and the death toll reached almost 1,200.

The Labor Department reported the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits surged to 3.28 million, the highest level ever. — Reuters

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